Book Review – ‘Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring, 1780- 1860: Shipboard life, unrest and mutiny’ by Derek Massarella

By Derek Massarella, published November 2020


In his introduction, Aaron Jaffer recapitulates the extensive secondary sources on lascar crews serving on British shipping. The author intends to contribute to this corpus by focusing on cases of mutiny, defined as the ‘violent takeover of a single ship by her crew’ (p. 17), a neglected aspect of lascar history, in order to shed new light on shipboard power relations, not only those between European and non-European crew members, but those among non-European crews as well. More generally, he aims to reconstruct shipboard life. In the main, he succeeds, although it should be emphasized that the employment of Asians on European shipping is much older than the author appears to think and, in the case of the East India Company, was an established practice from its earliest days.Besides the lengthy introduction, the book contains five chapters, a conclusion and an appendix of selected shipboard uprisings involving lascars.

Chapter 1 analyses cases of insubordination to find out what triggered mutinies (e.g. abuse, cultural difference, material grievances, religion, or the presence of women on ships). Chapter 2 considers how lascars sought to redress grievances and why, if pushed too far, they resorted to mutiny, and the varieties of mutiny that ensued. Chapter 3 examines the role of the serangs (the shipboard headmen and most powerful lascars) and the tindals (the serangs’ assistants) in the mutinies, while chapter 4 discusses shipboard life, hierarchies, routines and behaviour after the occurrence of mutiny. Chapter 5, the most ambitious, attempts to explore the repercussions and outcomes of mutiny, such as attempts to hunt down, prosecute and punish mutineers, relations with non-British rulers to retrieve lost ships and cargo, and, what all this tells us about British and European expansion in the Indian Ocean.

The author draws upon a wide range of archival source material, much located far from the more familiar records of the East India Company in the British Library. Nevertheless, despite the admirable mastery of source material on display, the reader is left somewhat puzzled as to what to make of it all …

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Filed under: Mutiny & Discipline | Eighteenth Century | Nineteenth Century | Indian Ocean | East India Company
Subjects include: Manpower & Life at Sea | Merchant Marines

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